Whitehot Magazine

Ray Johnson the Reclusive Genius Artist at Blum Gallery in Los Angeles

Ray Johnson, Black Hat with Figure, 1966, mixed media collage on illustration board, 29 1/4 x 18 x 1 1/2 inches (74.3 x 45.7 x 3.8 centimeters), photo: Evan Walsh


through May 4

By PETER FRANK May 4, 2024

Ray Johnson’s exquisite and crucial body of work – and the artistic network he was able to forge around that body and the sensibility behind it – turns out to be one of the driving forces in art (and not just Western art) of the later 20th century. Johnson himself, however, did all he can to muffle his own importance. He was well schooled in art history and kept rapt attention on the art world his entire life, but insisted on perching on the periphery, where, like some avant-garde meta-journalist, he could process gossip, consumer ads, and other information into coded objects, cryptic images, and doodles rendered with the suppleness of cartoons (which he loved) and graffiti art (which he anticipated) – without causing a fuss.

Ray Johnson, Issa, 1968, mixed media collage on illustration board, 19 7/8 x 11 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches (50.5 x 29.2 x 3.8 centimeters), photo: Evan Walsh

Or so he thought. In fact, Johnson was one of the highest-profile recluses in all of post-modernism, and with his effective invention (as the New York Correspondence School) of mail art, became a fixture in the art history he loved so much. For all his self-effacement and down-low evasion of personal attention, Johnson was broadly hailed in his own time as an innovator, both in artmaking and in art society, and as an artist himself of no little genius.

That genius, laboriously cultivated and deftly exercised, is richly demonstrated in the roomful of works on paper, spanning forty years and, incredibly enough, constituting Johnson’s first solo show in Los Angeles nearly 30 years after his death. His was a witty take on modern life, mixing a restless search for fun and entertainment and the company of others (real and imagined, current and historic) with a dense, jangly, but superbly ordered pictorial architecture designed to play peek-a-boo with the viewer’s own need to connect. The modality conflates craft, camp, and intimate collegiality, flying in the face of the postwar New York art world’s heroic posturing – but regarding such macho as something of a turn-on as well. Johnson wasn’t closeted (certainly not to his downtown milieu), but his artwork was.

Rene d'Harnoncourt Dollar Bill, 1970, mixed media collage on illustration board, 20 1/2 x 29 1/4 x 1 3/4 inches (52.1 x 74.3 x 4.4 centimeters), photo: Evan Walsh

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Just Another Shoe), 1979 - c. 1991, mixed media collage on illustration board, 22 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 1 3/4 inches (57.2 x 57.2 x 4.4 centimeters) photo: Hannah Mjølsnes


Ray Johnson, Untitled (Johnsong), date unknown, mixed media collage on masonite, 18 3/8 x 15 3/8 x 1 3/4 inches (46.7 x 39.1 x 4.4 centimeters), photo: Evan Walsh

A successful graphic designer in his day, Johnson relied on texture, rhythm, and line to describe and energize his name-dropping, movie-fantasy agglutinations. A good friend of Andy Warhol’s, Johnson played fanboy to Warhol’s cinematic fantasy land; but, where Warhol continued and attenuated the grand screen of the Abstract Expressionists, Johnson – who had studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College – evinced a tight formal control and scalar modesty that didn’t send A Message so much as a series of messages – to whomever might be at the other end of the gallery or postal service or notebook.

Johnson’s collages are silly and serious, salacious and sober, high-spirited and morose, dosed in loneliness and dazzling in the disco, and above all they are well fabricated and well composed, leading the eye clearly from item to item, no matter how banal or ridiculous those items may be. Each work is an invitation to communicate, be communicated with, and either continue the dialogue or withdraw from it and peer at it from the edge. Johnson’s playfulness and plaintiveness both characterize even the slightest of his works. However much Ray Johnson clung to the edge of the art world, he could never disappear. WM


Peter Frank

PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues.  (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson) 



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